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By Rebecca Koerselman
What does it mean to label something as boring?
A few weeks ago, Steve Mathonnet-Vander Well explained the words that he avoids. The word boring is on my list of words to avoid.
I do not use this word, but my students have no such qualms. In fact, the use of the word boring is usually accompanied by an eye roll and is used and over-used with regard to classes, professors, readings, speakers, or just about anything on a college campus. American youth have historically been difficult to impress and inclined to find everything boring.
Boring is in the eye of the beholder. I assert labeling something as boring tells me far more about the person doing the labeling. I suspect that everyone has their own idea of something that is boring, but that does not mean it is boring to everyone (or anyone) else.
Boring is an imprecise term. For example, I find some military history tedious, because some military historians tend to emphasize strategy and timing without paying any attention to what people heard, saw or felt. Not all military history is tedious, of course. It depends on how it is written. A gifted writer can make any subject come alive, or so I learned when I read John McPhee’s book, Oranges, a fascinating 175 page book on the history and significance of the orange. Who knew oranges could be so interesting?
Boring assumes that everything should be entertaining. I assign The Journal of John Woolman in one of my history classes. John Woolman, a Quaker, lived during the colonial era in America. He wrote of his inner struggle between the sinful desires of his heart and following Christ. Significantly, John Woolman spoke out against the institution of slavery in the colonial era, long before it was a popular national and international movement. I love this about Woolman. He was largely ignored by the national spotlight, and yet he was right. He was radical for his time—a pacifist AND an abolitionist? And he treated natives with respect and love? He lived simply and gave up his business because he was making too much money and believed wealth to be corrupting to his relationship with God. Woolman is not entertaining. But his life and the inner workings of his heart are compelling and he challenges me in my faith.
Many of my students complain that Woolman is boring. He talks about his feelings all the time. He says the same things over and over about his heart, they say. True. But is the end goal of life to be entertained? Woolman is not scalped by natives but talks with them, learns from them, and shares his faith. Woolman does not have super powers and fails to enact any daring escapes. He is not an impressive orator, and his writing style is not anything like John McPhee’s. Yet my heart is moved every time I read his journal. He is courageous, he is honest, and he is willing to confront his fellow Quakers, colonists, and even slave owners in a gracious and loving way. There are so few accounts of an honest walk with God. Who cares if it is boring? It is good, challenging, and encouraging.
Are you bored when you read parts of the Bible (ahem, Jeremiah, I’m talking to you) or listen to sermons, or read theology, or hear people share their testimonies? Is the end goal of sharing about one’s faith to entertain your audience?
I prefer to leave the entertaining to the professionals. I will take John Woolman’s admirable, honest, and gracious spirit over being entertained any day.
Rebecca Koerselman teaches history at Northwestern College in Orange City, Iowa.
I am delighted that you find Woolman moving. I’ve read his journal several times, and I think of things in it often. It has shaped me, for the better, I hope. At least some students may find that he will shape them, too. At least we can hope so.